Putting hope in heliports

City looks to heliports to reduce noise from flightseeing

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2002

Montana Creek Road passes residential subdivisions, a gravel pit and wooded muskeg. David Knuth's home is closest to the end, right next to the rifle range.

Knuth isn't against tourism, but doesn't think much of a city proposal to build a heliport on the other side of Montana Creek because of the changes it will bring.

"And then the city to pay for it? That's insanity," he said. "I used to live near the airport and I have nobody but myself to blame for that. I went over there and complained (about helicopter noise) frequently, but of course it didn't do any good."

Knuth, who shoots at the rifle range, said he doesn't mind the sound of gunfire. It's "not nearly as bad as the helicopters," he said.

If a heliport is built, Knuth's loss could be Juneau's gain. A city-sponsored study released in September found new heliports at Montana Creek and Dupont near Thane could drastically cut down on flightseeing noise over most Juneau homes.

The study evaluated 19 possible heliport sites in Juneau. Reducing flightseeing noise was the main focus, but it also looked at safety, traffic and ground impacts, economics, site acquisition and conflict with future growth.

By moving helicopter flightseeing operations to Montana Creek and Dupont, south of Thane, the study found the number of homes under the flight path of helicopter tours would drop from 6,037 to zero.

"One of the principles that we took at the beginning of the study was that if we simply moved noise impacts from one neighborhood it wouldn't be the answer, even in a reduced form," project manager McKie Campbell of Michael Baker Jr. Inc. said. "We don't think either of these sites do that."


A Dupont heliport may require an extension of Thane Road, although transporting passengers by boat is a possibility, the study said. Heliport sites at Sheep Creek and the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center also made the top-four list, but wouldn't be as successful in reducing noise, Campbell said.

The heliport plan is significant, especially because Juneau has recognized flightseeing noise as a serious problem, Mayor Sally Smith said.

"It's something that's dividing the community," she said. "If in fact we can develop a heliport that doesn't have a huge impact on a lot of the people, we've come a long way toward improving the quality of life for the community and making us more of a welcoming place.

"I think it's a really huge deal and I think people are afraid of it. Is it moving the noise from one group of people to another or are we really solving the problem?"

Unanswered questions

During public meetings this month, the heliport study generated discussion about neighborhood impacts and cost. The West Mendenhall Neighborhood Association and Juneau Neighbors, a coalition of Juneau neighborhood associations, have given the city pages of questions about what it would take to build and operate new heliports.

Like many people, Montana Creek Road resident Eric Jackson would like more information.

"Let's do some better testing. Let's fly some groups of helicopters," he said. "I don't think that at this point in time we're going to come up with a workable, final solution just out of the box. I think it's going to take some more study and trial and error."

Right now, people who live along Montana Creek Road hear occasional helicopter noise. A tour company operates a horse ride in the area during the summer, Jackson said.

"We live in a rural setting. We like the rural setting," he said. "I don't mind occasional overflights, but if I have to listen to it for 15,18 hours a day every 15 or 20 minutes, that's going to change my outlook a great deal," he said.

City officials and the people who wrote the heliport study agree more flight tests are a good idea. The study used noise models based on 80 flights a day to test the heliports sites. The results were retested with actual helicopter flights in August, Campbell said.

"If anything, we were being conservative. The computer modeling was predicting a higher noise level ... but not by much," he said. "We originated the suggestion for (another) Montana Creek test flight."


The city hopes to conduct tests that would mimic a commercial operation, city Lands Manager Steve Gilbertson said.

"It would be good to allow citizens to judge the difference in noise levels themselves," he said. "Some people are just leery of computer modeling. Basically, we'd groundtruth the results."

Currently, four Juneau helicopter operators run tour flights from the airport and a North Douglas heliport to nearby glaciers. Amy Windred, base manager at Era Helicopters in Juneau, also has questions about heliports. The cost and what new impacts they might bring likely will be deciding factors, she said.

"There's information as far as cost, other impacts, operationally how it works, whether it makes sense to do it," Windred said. "There's just a lot to go from, other questions that need to be answered."

Some of those questions will be answered sooner than others, according to the city's Gilbertson. Meetings with operators, the Assembly and the airport board will be needed, he said.

"Each step builds on the previous step. It's a cumulative process," he said.

The study doesn't outline what the new heliports will cost. Once the city works out some of the other issues, a site feasibility study can be used to determine how much land will be needed and what it might cost to build a new heliport, Gilbertson said.

"It depends on the design of the facility, how large, whether it's connected to the road, whether there is one operator or three operators," he said.

At a public meeting earlier this month, Bob Engelbrecht, president of helicopter tour company NorthStar Trekking, said a Dupont heliport site would take time and money to develop. At best, it would be years away, he said. A Sheep Creek heliport could be operational, at least on a trial basis, relatively soon, but the biggest problem is the site isn't beyond residential areas, he said.

Montana Creek also presents some operational and logistical challenges, Engelbrecht said. He said it might be difficult to move all helicopter operations there.

Era's Windred has some concerns with using a boat to get to the Dupont site. Coordination of passengers, tours and employees will need to be considered, she said.

"There's so many aspects in trying to use a boat that makes it difficult for me to see how they could do that in a reasonable way," she said. "With construction, do you have helicopters sling it in? Do you barge it out? How do you make it happen and is it cost effective to do it?"

Who pays for the heliports is a "heavyweight" issue for Andy Thomas, base manager for TEMSCO Helicopters in Juneau.

"I think it's an idea that has a lot of merit. If done right, it can solve most of the noise complaints, noise issues in town in residential areas," he said.

Heliport outlook

The idea of satellite heliports emerged during discussions about flightseeing noise over the past few years. A proposal to put a heliport at the little rock dump off Thane Road fizzled in 1999 after protests from Douglas residents. A U.S. Forest Service suggestion to put a heliport in the Dredge Lakes area met objection in early 2001.

The 2001 heliport study enlarged upon a city-sponsored analysis of flightseeing noise in summer 2000. Each project cost about $100,000 and was funded by cruise ship passenger fees.

Helicopter noise has a significant impact on Juneau and that's why the city contracted for the noise studies, Assembly member Jim Powell said.

"It's not any question we need to address it. I think alternative heliports are a way we need to look at," he said. "But we need to come up with a solution that doesn't burden one part of town with all the noise. That's the trick, that's the challenge."

Powell said he's in favor of "seriously considering" a heliport at Dupont. He hopes the city makes a decision on heliports and moves forward within the next five months.

Planning and Policy Committee chairman Dale Anderson expects Assembly members will put together a plan of action on heliports by mid-February. And he hopes the city will be able to address questions about cost and neighborhood impacts.

"The concept of not doing anything about flightseeing is not on my list of options," he said. "I don't think anybody likes the problem and it's a problem that needs to be solved."

Anderson said he wants to hear more public input before he begins to consider one site over another. Even the recommended sites have pros and cons, he said.

"I don't have my mind made up. Site location is still a very real toss-up," he said. "At this junction, there haven't been any sites that have answered all of my concerns."

Other than quiet technology, Mayor Smith said heliports may be the city's only option to address flightseeing noise.

"Quiet technology is prohibitively expensive. Of course, alternative 'Plan Z' is to outlaw flightseeing and I don't think that serves the purpose of the bulk of the people," she said. "Most of us appreciate the people who own these businesses and want them to succeed and want visitors to have the experience. But we also want to have our lives."

This summer?

When it comes to where to put new heliports, Smith said her mind is open. But she doesn't expect much change in noise this summer.

"That I regret very much," she said. "It's because of the issues of where to site it, how to build it, who owns it, who operates it and if they build it, will they come? I don't see how those issues will be solved in time for this season. If the issues were solved, there's still a construction project."


As in previous years, the city will be working with flightseeing operators on "fly neighborly practices," Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce said. But this summer may include unforeseen variables, she said.

"We don't know how many people are coming or how Sept. 11 will affect cruise passengers. And that has a direct affect on flightseeing activities," she said.

TEMSCO's Thomas said tourism operators are now reviewing results of last summer's "best management practices" or voluntary compliance program to see if and where changes may be needed. The city-sponsored effort outlines voluntary guidelines for operators aimed at minimizing the effect of tourism on Juneau's neighborhoods.

Anderson said Assembly members have high expectations for operators to comply with such guidelines.

"If new routes can be outlined or adjusted to better suit the need of residents who are having problems with the sound, those are certainly on the table," he said.

But Thane resident and Peace and Quiet Coalition member Ray Preston worries nothing will be done to address noise issues in the short term. And he predicts the heliport proposals "will die on the vine" because of cost and neighborhood issues.

"The problem calls out for short-term and long-term solutions and no one on the Assembly is talking about any short-term solutions," he said. "I don't know if, as we approach the problem, the way to go is to consider a community or a sub-community as expendable."

Thane resident Cindy Buxton has been involved in discussions about the noise issue since she moved to Juneau in 1993. She has participated in public meetings, an unsuccessful ballot campaign to limit flights and a failed mediation effort between the city, operators and noise opponents in 2000.

The city should continue investigating satellite heliports, but make sure it isn't moving the problem from one neighborhood to another, she said. If the Dupont site was just for helicopters and served by boat, it could help with the overall helicopter noise problem, she said.

"I could live with having it at Dupont," she said. "I think it's a shame because Dupont is a beautiful place. ... But I think it's better than what is going on now."

But satellite heliports probably won't come soon enough for Buxton and her husband, mining consultants who work at home. They plan to sell their house because of continuing flightseeing noise.

"I think that if they did it this year, I wouldn't sell my house. But the fact is, I don't know that it's going to happen for the next five years and I'm tired of waiting."

Shelagh Sands moved to Thane for its rural setting. While helicopter noise doesn't bother her, she is concerned about possible changes to Thane Road.

"I think for me the issue is that it would make more congestion on the road," she said. "I just think it would totally change our neighborhood."

Thane is a popular recreation area, Sands said. People from all over Juneau run, bike, walk their dogs and take their kids out in strollers on the road, she said.

Sands said she wouldn't object to a Dupont heliport if Thane Road is left alone. But she doubts that a boat would be able to serve operations at Dupont. The channel can get rough in bad weather and ground support will be needed, she said.

"The noise for me right now is not an issue. If it's at Sheep Creek, it would be an issue," she said. "The helicopters would go right by our houses."

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.

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